The Musee d’Orsay in Paris has mounted a small though endearing exhibition to commemorate the centennial of Gustav Mahler’s death (on May 18).
Most of the 100 or so pieces come from two sources -- the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and the collection of Henry-Louis de La Grange, author of a three-volume biography of the Austrian composer.
In the first of three sections, you find portraits of Mahler’s fellow composers Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf, views of the landscapes around Vienna that inspired him and of the country houses where he wrote his symphonies.
Alma, his wife, appears in a youthful photo and, at the end of her life, in a television interview reminiscing about her marriages with Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel.
That she wasn’t the only woman in Mahler’s life you may infer from a letter -- just the envelope, alas -- to the soprano Anna von Mildenburg and a couple of striking photos. When she gossiped about the affair, Mahler quickly ended it.
The most amusing item in that first part is a fan signed by Brahms, Mahler, Johann Strauss and other musicians.
The second section, devoted to Mahler the conductor and opera director, includes a manuscript of Alma’s notorious memoirs (with corrections), Mahler’s handwritten draft for three concerts with the New York Philharmonic and drawings by the set designer Alfred Roller for a production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Vienna Court Opera.
Young Adolf Hitler had a letter of introduction to Roller and walked up to his apartment yet didn’t dare ring the bell. Had he been less shy, world history might have taken a different course.
The show’s last section includes scores of symphonies, caricatures, Mahler’s glasses, his pen and his last baton.
The exhibition comes paired with one from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.: “A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain 1848-1875.”
To the modern eye, the literary pretensions and historical masquerades of those early photographers often are unintentionally funny. It’s hard to take portraits seriously in which the sitter is disguised as the Virgin Mary, a minstrel or King Lear.
Yet there’s no denying that Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Peach Robinson and Charles Dodgson (better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll), to mention but a few, were important names in the history of photography.
Their pictures fit perfectly with works of the academic “pompiers,” the 19th-century “Fireman Artists” that abound at the Musee d’Orsay.
Both shows run through May 29. Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr or +33-1-4049-4814.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)